Do You Remember? Monopoly

A board game that hinges on buying and selling imaginary real estate might not, at first glance, seem like such a shoo-in for the All-Star Toy team. Kids like to pretend, sure…they imagine they’re superheroes, war heroes, civic heroes (like cops and firemen and teachers), king and queens, princes and princesses, and characters from their favorite TV shows. The list is long, and each has its own mythology that’s waiting to be tapped into and made one’s own. A Monopoly player, on the other hand, assumes the guise of a businessman…which is certainly not the flashiest of vocations.

But what Monopoly has in spades is a thing even more important than flash, a thing which can one-up even the coolest of costumes and magically-powered accouterments and excellent heroics—it has that ‘when I play this, I’m all grown-up’ allure. And that, All-Star voters, is a chord that runs through the better part of the toy kingdom’s greats.

Deciding where and when to build houses on the property you own is a very mature business indeed, and when a board game can make a little tyke (tycoon, if he’s lucky) feel big, he’ll play and play and play. This is one of the reasons we continue to play Monopoly as adults—most of us don’t, and will never, have funds impressive enough to buy railroads and whole streets. That’s the stuff of the Trumps and the Gates and the Sultans of the world. But if we play Monopoly, we can pretend for an hour or two that we actually own property and a lot of it. We can pretend that that fistful of money is real.

Of course, Monopoly’s appeal isn’t all wish-fulfillment and role-playing. It’s also just a tightly structured, addictive, competitive, fabulous board game. It takes a perfect combination of luck and strategy to do well, it can be played by a wide range of ages, and it’s full of harrowing heartbreak and triumph. There are only a few games that can put a knot in a competitive player’s stomach, and this is one of them.

The early 1930s found Charles Darrow the same way it found millions of Americans—unemployed and scared. Between whatever odd job he could muster in his native Germantown, Pennsylvania, Darrow passed the time (and calmed his nerves) by inventing the odd toy or card game accessory. One night at the kitchen table, oilcloth spread out before him, Darrow sketched the names of a few Atlantic City streets—the home of sunnier, more carefree days for him, according to Monopoly legend. His friends and neighbors loved the game, and when he offered a few copies to department stores in Philadelphia, they took the bait, and the games sold. With the help of a printer friend, Darrow could make up to six games a day.

Then, encouraged by local fans and all the positive word-of-mouth, Darrow pitched the game to Parker Brothers in 1934. Company executives in Salem, Massachusetts claimed they liked it, but couldn’t get past its design flaws (fifty-two, according to their count!). First of all, the Parkers believed that family games should only run about forty-five minutes, and Monopoly could stretch for hours. They also believed that a game should have a distinct and tangible endpoint—at which the winner arrives first. But in a Monopoly game, players kept circling and circling, and the end—your opponents’ bankruptcy—wasn’t always such a cut and dried event. Commonly, flailing Monopoly players just throw up their hands in defeat—perhaps not technically out of cash, but unable to bear the thought of any more white-knuckled die rolls. It’s certainly a loss, but for the boys at Parker Brothers, there wasn’t enough finality to it.

So Darrow went back to his printer acquaintance and worked feverishly to fill the department stores’ increasing orders. He debuted the game at the 1935 Toy Fair, and soon, even New York’s prestigious toy paradise F.A.O. Schwarz was placing orders. At this point, Parker Brothers’ interest in the game was stirred up anew. They bought the rights from Darrow, made a few revisions, and started to mass-produce. Darrow got rich from the royalties, retired, and devoted himself to world travel and exotic orchids.

Origin stories aside, the game is a permanent part of our toy culture now. Over two hundred million copies have been sold worldwide, and the game has been translated into twenty-six languages, Braille among them. In more recent years, customized versions have been produced for other, non-Atlantic-City cities, as well as for universities, the Star Wars universe, and pretty much anything else that has a geographic location. And if you’ve trounced your family members and impressed the block with your seeming impenetrable solvency, you might consider a tournament or better yet, the Monopoly World Championships, which started in 1973.

Pick your token and say a little pre-start prayer to the real estate gods. Once the game starts, you can buy property on impulse or according to probability (there are books published on this kind of thing) or based on what streets you think have the prettiest color. Some people fancy a four-railroad empire, some go in for the snooty Park Place and Boardwalk, and others like a low-rent, modest fixer-upper street, like a Baltic or a Mediterranean. Just look out for the following: thieving rapscallions who sneak bills out of the money till when the designated ‘banker’ goes to get a Popsicle from the fridge, and slick-tongued dealmakers who persuade you to trade property against your better judgment.

Roll well, try to stay out of jail, and most important of all, buy and develop your property with a real entrepreneurial flair…the likes of which the Trumps and the Gates and the Sultans would be proud of.

About Mickey Yarber 237 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Sometimes referred to as the Retro Rambler...I was born in the '70s, grew up in the '80s, and came of age in the '90s. I love to share all the fun stuff from those years via my Retro Ramblings column.

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